The U.S. military is now ending its ban on women in combat positions. Did you have to read that sentence again? I still do, and I just typed it …and heard it on NPR this morning, and I heard it on the television last night. I still feel like it’s not something I should be hearing in 2013. No, I’m not talking about the lifting the ban part, I’m talking about the ban to begin with. It’s been nearly 100 years since we gave women the right to vote (and I’m hoping it was equally bizarre to at least some people back then that they didn’t have that right before 1920), and just now can women die fighting for that right, at least officially and directly.
Women have already been dying and getting severely injured in wars for years now. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled veteran currently serving in the House is great proof of that, and proof what kind of a hero a woman can be. The helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a rocket propelled grenade in Iraq. Tammy was in the air, though, and a lot of the ban was on ground troops. Still, that proves that devotion and strength of character of women aren’t in question, nor should they ever have been. After all, there are plenty of women buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Even on the ground, though women have been in the line of danger for quite some time. As CNN points out, too, “More than 800 women were wounded [in Iraq and Afghanistan], and at least 130 have died.” War now is quite unlike war in centuries or even decades past. There isn’t really a defined front line anymore. Developing new strategies to fit into this truth is part of our struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s also part of the struggle to figure out what our policies and strategies should be in the continuing ‘War on Terror.’ Like it or not, we don’t fight just one clearly defined enemy in a clearly defined space anymore. Our enemies are vast and spread out. As such, women in military roles are already basically in combat roles. As Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars points out, “The current DOD policy is to not assign women to combat units, yet irregular warfare, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, places those in combat support or combat-service support units in just as much risk as the infantry.” In Afghanistan women are also used as outreach to locals. At any point an assignment like that can already morph into a combat mission.
The last piece in this is that though they could technically already fight and die for their country the ban on combat roles effectively banned them from moving up the ranks in the military like a male could. That is perhaps one of the more outrageous effects of this. Top level commanders are (pretty rightfully) required or preferred to have combat badges, and without those badges, women aren’t allowed into those positions, either. As Greg Jacop, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network says, “If women remain restricted to combat service and combat service support specialties, we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” He then goes on to point out a specific example in General Ann Dunwoody, the only woman four-star General in the history of the U.S. military, who was not considered for appointment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, despite her qualifications. They want to see actual combat veterans in those roles, and, again, that’s not an unreasonable thing in and of itself.
“If women remain restricted… we will not see a woman as Commandant of the Marine Corps, or CENTCOM commander, or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff”
By now I’ve heard many arguments against this, and each one is a bit more suspicious than the last. The first argument is that men would fall prey to emotions, particularly when a woman in their unit is hurt. First, the same sort of logic would apply to friends, too, and as far as I’m aware generally a unit tends to become friends with one another. Being in a dire situation with someone else will do that to you naturally. So, you’re always going to get a strong emotional reaction when someone in your unit dies or is severely injured. This has almost nothing to do with gender. The unit should hopefully be trained well enough to overcome those sorts of things and do their mission.
I’ve even seen people say studies prove those emotional responses. Perhaps that is a real thing. There may very well be a visceral reaction in men to seeing women directly in combat. That’s not really an excuse to keep the ban, however. Those reactions could be deeply rooted in our previously sexist society and traditional gender rolls. I’d bet money that you could find some bad reactions among some whites towards black people when we started desegregating the military and Eisenhower allowed African American soldiers to join white units. At that time, however, the problem wasn’t physical, it would likely have been trust issues. Still, trust is a rather important thing when you’re in combat. I’m sure at that time someone could come up with a convincing argument on what it might do to morale. Despite this, we can’t continue discriminatory policies based on current racist/sexist discriminatory sentiments. It almost becomes a self-perpetuating circle. You have a negative opinion of a group in a role, and then can’t let them into that role because of that negative opinion. In the end it’s nonsense. You have to look to the future.
“We can’t continue discriminatory policies based on current racist/sexist discriminatory sentiments.”
That brings me to the physical problem. The next argument is that women aren’t strong enough to climb over walls or carry a fallen comrade like a man would be. Well, when it comes to choosing particular people you really can’t rely on averages. Even if you say that women are on average less strong, then that doesn’t really say anything. For example, in the Olympics there are a few sports where men on average tend to excel beyond women. Now does this mean when I’m putting together a team that I should only pick men and ban all women? Does this mean I, personally, would be a better choice on say a co-ed swimming team than a female Olympic athlete like Allison Schmitt? After all, on average men might be the better swimmers! No, you’d always pick that Olympic athlete. On an individual level they could kick my butt without even trying. I wouldn’t even be able to touch Allison’s 200m freestyle record despite the apparent genetic advantage of having a penis. That’s what you have to look at, the individual level. There are plenty of women in the world stronger than me. There are plenty quicker than me. And there are definitely plenty far more capable of handling themselves in combat than me. Why should I still have a right that they don’t? If you have what it takes on the individual level, then your genitals shouldn’t bar you from entry. If they do, then that’s sexism, pure and simple.
In the end there will be some adjustment. With strides like this and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, there will probably be a few ripples, but that’s just for now. In the end, just like when white people had to accept black people into their units, people will overwhelmingly learn to fight alongside whoever else is willing to fight and die for their country, and we’ll all be better off for it. Now if only we’d make better strides to curb our sexual assault epidemic in the military. Women shouldn’t have to fear being sexually assaulted more than being killed in combat, but, that’s for another post. One baby step at a time.